HONORING HARVEY PHILLIPS, PART I: Inspired by a Funeral?
by Michael Salzman, Hofstra University
People asked me, “How was the funeral?” Typical responses to that question are “sad,” “a wonderful tribute,” “moving,” even “beautiful.” But how often do you hear adjectives like “motivating” and “inspirational” in response to that question? Well those were my replies to that question. This is the story of my trip back to Bloomington for the funeral of Harvey Phillips and how that trip changed my life.
I’m not sure why it was so important to me to make the trek from New York to Bloomington in the middle of a very busy week at work. Perhaps it was guilt. I felt terrible that I had not been out to Tubaranch to visit in far too long. My teacher-mentor was dying, and I didn’t go and see him to tell him how I felt and how grateful I was that he played such an important role in my life. Carol and Tom had invited me out every time we spoke and every year when they came to New York for TubaChristmas. When Mr. Phillips was too sick to make the trip to N. Y. in 2009, I should have realized that my opportunities to visit with him would now be very limited, but I just went on with my life. So maybe when it was finally too late, it was the guilt that drove me to get there. Maybe I needed to pay my respects to the family, maybe I wanted to see who would be there and see former teachers and classmates. I don’t know which. All I do know is that I received the news of his death just before seeing all of my students at a tuba-euphonium ensemble rehearsal at the university, and, while I was telling them how I was feeling, I realized that I just needed to get out there for the funeral, so I went.
So here I was in Bloomington again. I made it in for the last hour of the wake on Tuesday evening, and I would have to leave to catch a flight as soon as the funeral ended on Wednesday. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay for the burial or to go back to the ranch and visit. It was going to be a quick trip, in and out, and then back to work early Thursday morning. At the wake I paid my respects to the family. Big hugs for Carol and Tom who I get to see annually and talk to from time to time. Nice to see Jesse and Harvey Jr. again and meet their families. Harvey Phillips was always such a towering figure in my life, literally and figuratively, that it was difficult to see how withered the illness had left him. I watched the slide show and looked at the photos around the room. We laughed about the time I brought that huge round portrait back from Manhattan in my van. I said my goodbyes, then it was off to Bear’s Place to reminisce. The pizza and beer were as good as I remembered. This was the place where Ted Cox and I brought Michael Lind when he arrived for a semester with us. This was the place where Norlan Bewley and I took Tommy Johnson. It was here where I met Dave Gannett and John Allred. This was the place where I had eaten hundreds of pizzas and probably drank thousands of beers. A flood of emotions and memories went through my head before leaving. It turned out that my old friend Norlan and I were staying at the same hotel, so I called him and we had a chance to catch up a bit. It was great to see him and to meet his wife.
Harvey and Carol Phillips having lunch in Munich, photo courtesy of Robert Tucci.
I checked out early Wednesday morning needing time to see the old tuba studio. It’s a few doors down now and appropriately adorned with plaques commemorating the former resident Professors Bell and Phillips. Then down to the Tuba Basement. My old locker looked exactly the same, so did the rest of the room. The young men down there practicing could have been any one of us. I felt so old. I’m almost 50 now, the same age that Mr. Phillips was when I arrived as a freshman in ’79. Next, off to the bookstore to buy some I. U. attire for the kids (and me too, of course). After all, what’s a trip to a funeral without sightseeing and souvenirs?
Next I headed downtown for a quick bite to eat. I knew I wouldn’t have time after the service, I’d have to rush back to Indy for the flight home. And, I wanted to get there early enough to “see and be seen” of course. I was early on purpose. That gave me time to talk. I’m sorry that it took this death in order for me to see all these people, but I can’t think of another event that would have brought them all together. Great to see my former teachers Dave Baker, Charles Gorham, Keith Brown, Dominick Spera, and Dean Charles Webb. They were all great influences on me, and I got to tell them so. It was also great to see my classmates Norlan, Jim Williams, and Eric Strohecker. I’d certainly lost touch with them and we had a lot of memories to share.
So now the funeral service itself. I was a little surprised that the church wasn’t packed, but it’s not so easy to get in and out of Bloomington midweek and everyone’s so busy. I had certainly let too many opportunities to get there pass me by. I felt sad, of course, guilty too. But I wasn’t expecting what came next. I sat there and listened to speaker after speaker say things that I already knew. Charles Webb, Dean Emeritus of the School of Music summed it all up with a great line I’ll never forget. He said, “Harvey Phillips gave the tuba it’s dignity and class.” Every speech was heartfelt and moving. Dan Perantoni spoke about everything that Harvey had done for him, and I began to think about all the doors that Mr. Phillips had opened for me, then about all the opportunities he created for all of us. In the end, there was nothing said that I didn’t already know, but I desperately needed to hear it all. I was so inspired by hearing about everything this great man had accomplished in his eighty years of life. When it’s my turn to go, there probably won’t be a full page obituary in the New York Times. I’m sure that people will have nice things to say about me, at least I hope so, but how will my list of accomplishments read? Not like the one I was hearing.
Harvey at the Tuba Ranch, photo courtesy of Robert Tucci.
As I listened to one great speaker after another I remember feeling as if I finally had my last five minutes alone with my teacher. It was as if he himself was saying to me, “Michael, this is everything I’ve accomplished and everything I want you to remember. This is the last time I’m going to tell you, so listen carefully. Now you’re on your own. Take what I’ve given you and run with it.” So I thought about everything I learned from Harvey Phillips. Not just how to play the tuba, but more importantly, how to be a tuba player. I thought about all the lessons he tried to to teach me. The ones about the privilege of being a musician and my responsibilities as a tuba player. My responsibilities to my teachers, my peers, my students and to my instrument and its reputation. My responsibility to building the body of literature for my instrument and for how that instrument is perceived by the public. Next I thought about all of the tuba students who would never again get to hear these lessons directly from this great teacher. The legacy of Harvey Phillips will now rest in the hands of all of us that knew him, learned from him and were inspired by him. It is now our responsibility to share what we were privileged to learn first hand and to pass it on to the next generation. I sat there, at the Methodist Church in Bloomington, expecting to be sad, and instead I felt inspired and motivated. I felt, first of all, a dedication to my students. A dedication to making sure that I was being the best teacher I could be. Next I felt a dedication to my tuba playing. I was determined that in the course of my life, the best tuba player I would ever be was going to be in my future, not in my past. Since then I’ve been practicing like I haven’t practiced in many years. I’m finding time where I never thought it existed and prioritizing that time so that practicing is now much higher on the list of what’s really important.
Since that inspirational, motivating funeral in Bloomington this past October, I’ve been working on a special project. I’ve been preparing a Lecture/Recital entitled, “The Legacy of Harvey Phillips.” I’ve put together a list of those aspects of Mr. Phillips’ teaching that I think are most important to pass on to my students and I’ve picked pieces that help me to emphasize each. I’ve even commissioned a new piece as part of the project. So far I’ve planned three presentations for later this year, and I hope to book more. Now before I go any further let me emphasize that I, in no way, feel that I am the most qualified person to represent The Legacy of Harvey Phillips. I do believe, although, that I am dedicating myself to continuing the work of a master teacher and that I share this responsibility with all of his former students. This is my way to “pay it forward.”
Now I ask you to consider these questions:
- What did you learn from Harvey Phillips?
- What opportunities did Harvey Phillips create for you?
- How many doors did Harvey Phillips open for you?
- When you teach, how often do you find yourself quoting Harvey Phillips?
If these questions are easy for you to answer, then answer one more:
- What role will you play in continuing The Legacy of Harvey Phillips?
I’ve purposely not mentioned any specifics about what Harvey Phillips did for me or what I’m planning to talk about or play in my Lecture/Recital. Not because I’m trying to keep any secrets; I’ll put all of that in another article some time. I’m leaving it out now because I want you to answer these questions for yourself. There are thousands of us who have been taught or inspired by Harvey Phillips. He helped so many of us shape our careers and he and his work has opened so many doors for so many of us. If you are included in this group, then I challenge you to find your place in the legacy of this great man. So do a recital, write an article, start a TubaChristmas in a city that never had one, record a CD, practice more, lend a hand to someone who needs your help or who could benefit from something you learned from Harvey Phillips, it doesn’t matter which, but do something. Imagine if everyone whose life was touched by Harvey Phillips each did one thing to perpetuate his work, his legacy. The impact would be truly profound.
I don’t know if anyone will be able to include “inspired” in the list of adjectives that describe how they feel after my funeral, but I hope so. Thank you Mr. Phillips. You continue to inspire me to be my best.
Michael Salzman is the Coordinator of Fine and Performing Arts for the Syosset Central School District in Syosset, New York. He is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Music at Hofstra University where he teaches applied tuba and euphonium and directs the Tuba/Euphonium Ensemble and the Brass Ensemble. In addition he is the Tubist and Director of the Cosmopolitan Brass Quintet, a freelance player in the New York area and a Regional Coordinator for the New York City TubaChristmas. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.